4 Offensive Words That Started Out as the Polite Alternative

#2. "Handicapped"

Referring to someone with a physical disability as "crippled" sounds pretty harsh to our modern ears, but for a long, long time that was the best and only way to describe someone who had lost a limb or was otherwise physically impaired, mainly because for a long, long time we didn't know that people had feelings.

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"You, sir, are an ugly person."
"That hurts me."
"But how?"
"I don't know."

But eventually someone realized that calling someone "crippled" was a bit harsh and not wholly accurate; certain injuries or conditions might impair someone without crippling them. And so sometime around the early 20th century the term "handicapped" appeared, with the meaning that those so afflicted were carrying an extra burden that the rest of us didn't.

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"You, sir, are deficient at looking good."
"That's better, I guess."

That word more or less lingers around to this day, although you probably have noticed that it's slowly being phased out. "Handicapped" focuses pretty harshly on the negative, perhaps unfairly so. After all, if someone's impairment isn't a big factor in their life, if they're good at lots of other things that aren't walking, why does the one label they're routinely tagged with focus on the thing they can't do? Think about yourself. You'd probably prefer to be known as an "accountant," or "husband," or "gamer," and in most contexts people will generally call you that, instead of a label that focuses on the one thing you're not good at.

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Like a "gets winded climbing up the stairs spaghetti-person."

"Physically disabled" is the preferred term now, although, as far as I can see, that has basically the exact same problem, which is probably why you now see a few people floating terms like "differently abled" and the like. More changes are coming, I'm sure, and honestly, given how cruel the world can be sometimes, we should be prepared to call these people whatever they want, up to and including not calling them by a label at all. (When the circumstances permit it, I find that calling someone by their name is a good trick.)

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"You, sir, are Theodore."
"I am, aren't I!"

#1. "Negro"

If you hear someone casually toss around the word "Negro" now, you can be pretty sure you're talking to a racist or a time traveler.

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I suppose the time traveler could be racist, too.

But it wasn't always a horribly offensive word, and to see how, let's actually go back a step and start with the word that preceded it. "Colored" sounds incredibly dated and offensive to us now, but that wasn't always the case. It used to be one of the more civil terms used to describe black people; it's what the U.S. government itself used on their census forms. Also, consider that when an organization dedicated to the advancement of black people's rights was choosing a name for itself around the turn of the century, they went with "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People," because "colored" was the most positive description generally used at the time (among a sea of some pretty horrible negative ones, no doubt).

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"Can't say that, can't say that, or that, or ... holy shit, history."

"Colored" faded away in the 1920s when prominent black leaders advocated switching the preferred term to "Negro," and for the middle decades of the 20th century, this was the term most black people themselves preferred. A similar debate by black leaders in the 1960s resulted in the switch from "Negro" to "black," which is what we now more or less use today.

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Fun fact: "Negro" remained on official census forms all the way up until the year two-thousand-god-damned-thirteen.

In the 1980s, the term "African-American" was introduced, and it caught on a bit but never fully displaced "black," which suggests that "black" might be here awhile. That's good news for all the old people out there who seem most prone to tripping up on the racial labels these euphemism treadmills keep spitting out.

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"You meant an Oriental rug, right, Grandpa?"

You can sort of see Crazy Racist Grandpa's side of the issue here. He's using the polite, sensitive word he was taught to use when growing up, and he simply didn't know that the world had changed around him.

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"You should have heard what my grandpa called them, boy."

But on the other hand, the words we use matter, and if people are predictably going to be insulted or humiliated by the things you say, that's on you, not them. It doesn't take much to keep track of what words are going to be insulting or humiliating; "Negro" and "Oriental" haven't been acceptable for a long time now, which you would have picked up on if you'd read a newspaper or spoken to another human being in the past couple decades.

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"Yeah, but then I might have to change my opinion about some things."

Still, this weird quirk of euphemism cycling is something worth remembering the next time Grandma says something insane at Thanksgiving. It might not just be because she's a huge bigot. She could have simply checked out of the civilized world a few decades ago.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and is terrified he messed up somewhere while writing this and accidentally offended several billion people. Join him on Facebook or Twitter to express your outrage.

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